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'Joe Louis: An American Hero': A New CD Includes Songs Inspired by an Athlete

February 25, 2001

'Joe Louis: An American Hero': A New CD Includes Songs Inpspired by an Athlete


JOE LOUIS was still relatively new on the national scene and would not be the world's heavyweight boxing champion for nearly two more years when Memphis Minnie sang of the man and his arms in August 1935. Louis's left and right, she belted out in her husky, lusty voice, were like "a kick from a Texas mule" and a "jolt of dy-nee-mite." Films of a recent Louis fight were playing at the local theater, she sang, and she told everyone not to miss them. "If you ain't got no money," she declared, "honey, go tomorrow night." She then told of betting all her money, the "ten hundred dollars" she'd laid up on her shelf, that Louis's latest victim wouldn't last a round. And then she explained why.

I wouldn't even pay my house rent
I wouldn't buy me nothing to eat
Joe Louis said 'Take a chance with me,
I'm going to put you up on your feet!'
He's in the ring (he's still fighting!)
Doing the same old thing!


Are there any tributes more powerful or eloquent than those that are put to music? Words of praise slip easily off the tongue, but hymns of praise seem to emerge, like the air on which they're borne, from some deeper part of the soul. To be immortalized in a single song is a kick; to have a couple written about you is extraordinary. But to have dozens is homage of almost biblical proportions, and in the world of sports only Joe Louis has that distinction. Rena Kosersky, who spent the last nine years tracking down musical paeans to the Brown Bomber, found at least 43 songs about Louis, and says there are probably many more.

"No other fighter or world class athlete for that matter has inspired a number of songs even remotely approximating it," said William H. Wiggins Jr., an authority on Joe Louis at the University of Indiana.

Ms. Kosersky, whose business it is to find and marry historic music to documentaries, has squeezed 17 of these songs actually, 15, plus a 1940 sermon on Louis and an interview with one of the performers onto "Joe Louis: An American Hero," a compact disc just released by Rounder Records. The contents come in many genres blues, jazz, ballads, gospel, Tin Pan Alley. Some of the artists, like Jack Sneed and his Sneezers ("Big Joe Louis," 1938) and Billy Hicks and his Sizzlin' Six ("Joe the Bomber," 1937), are long forgotten. A few, like Memphis Minnie, are well-known to aficionados. And a couple Count Basie, Cab Calloway are famous. Though some whites, like Irving Berlin, composed songs about Joe Louis, with the exception of Henry Nemo, who wrote and apparently sings in "Joe the Bomber," all of the artists and writers are black. Collectively, their work crystallizes, more eloquently than any other documents ever could, how for a decade or more Louis bore on his shoulders the hopes of a people more solely and squarely than perhaps anyone else ever did.

Louis fought his first professional fight in 1934, a crucial and difficult juncture for black America. It was the Depression, which hit the black community especially hard. It was an era both when Jim Crow still reigned and the first signs of black activism and political power were appearing; when lynchings persisted but the campaign against them grew more powerful; when blacks remained barred from most professional sports but won Olympic medals. Only in boxing did blacks and whites go at each other, and even there only reluctantly and recently.

It took 20 years for blacks to overcome the legacy of Jack Johnson, the black champion whose swagger had so scandalized white America. And only the soft-spoken and polite Louis, whose black managers drilled into him the importance of appearing even more polite, unthreatening and self- effacing than he naturally was, could have pulled it off. Louis thus became the only black man in America licensed to slug a white man and get rich doing it. And he came along at a time when the new mass media records, newsreels, fight films, radio could make him seem both ubiquitous and familiar, a saint and a friend. In black America, no other athlete ever loomed so large, nor could have, nor needed to, nor would again.

And that includes Jackie Robinson, who came along in later, better times, played a sport that was not as popular in the black community, had a prickly temper and, as a college graduate, lacked Louis's broad appeal, which made him a hero to churchgoers and numbers runners alike. "Jackie was a good athlete, but he wasn't Joe Louis," said Frank Bolden, who covered both men for The Pittsburgh Courier, the legendary black weekly. "Jackie played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but Joe Louis played for the world. He showed us how to make stepping stones out of stumbling blocks."

THE songs retrace Louis's impoverished origins in Alabama, his youth in Detroit, his boxing beginnings. And they follow his fate in "fistiana," as the sports writers of the day liked to call it: his victories in 1935 over two former world champions, Primo Carnera and Max Baer; his stunning loss to another former champion, the German Max Schmeling, in 1936; his comeback against still another former champion, Jack Sharkey, a few months later; his winning the heavyweight title from James J. Braddock in 1937; and his legendary 1938 rematch with Schmeling. That fight, surely the most politically charged event in the history of sports because of Schmeling's perceived Nazi ties, took Louis all of 124 seconds to win.

The Louis of these songs is someone who deals out ambidextrous destruction in the ring. But out of it, he is decent, hard working, gentle. "In a fight he's out to kill/ but a gent on Sugar Hill," Nemo, who died only last year, wrote in "Joe the Bomber." The songs describe Louis's famous poker face, his natty clothes, his love of a nice thick steak. Several stress how good he is to his mother the type, Joe Pullum sings in "Joe Louis Is the Man" (1935), to buy her a brand new home with his earnings. Above all, you could stake your bottom dollar on Joe Louis, and Memphis Minnie wasn't the only one who did. "You got any money? I'll bet you!" Lil Johnson sings in "Winner Joe, the Knockout King" (1936). Bill Gaither elaborates in "Champ Joe Louis (King of the Gloves)" (1938):

If I had had a million dollars
I would have bet every dime on Joe
If I'd have had a million dollars
I would bet every dime on Joe
I would be a rich man this very day
And I wouldn't have to worry no mo'.


Of course, Louis himself ended up impoverished, spending his final days before his death in 1981 greeting people at a Las Vegas casino. But only one song in this collection dates from after 1947; all of the problems that plagued Louis later on failed marriages, drugs, mental illness, the Internal Revenue Service not only go unmentioned here but would have been quite inconceivable to those singing about him. That much is clear from Sampson Pittman, an Arkansas-born bluesman whom the legendary musicologist Alan Lomax recorded in 1938.

Joe lives just like a preacher
Don't dip chew or smoke
His wife's a school teacher

Now how in the world can he go broke?


Ms. Kosersky first encountered the Joe Louis phenomenon while selecting music for "The Great Depression," a 1993 series for PBS that devoted considerable time to the boxer. Looking for material, she went to her usual sources: catalogs, collectors, discographies. "Once I got beyond 10 Louis songs, I thought, 'My God, this is more recordings than I've ever collected for any other athlete," said Ms. Kosersky, who has worked on documentaries about Joe DiMaggio, Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali.

Many of the early Louis songs are by solo blues musicians a reflection, perhaps, of Louis's first constituency or of the relative simplicity of performing and recording blues rather than more elaborate musical arrangements. Pullum's "Joe Louis Is the Man" seems to be the first Louis song, dated Aug. 13, 1935; within nine days, Memphis Minnie had added both "He's in the Ring (Doin' the Same Old Thing)" and the "Joe Louis Strut." Two weeks after that, Carl Martin joined in, and tabulated Louis's numbers up to then.

Now he's won all his fights
Twenty three or four
And left twenty of his opponents
Lying on the floor
They all tried to win
But the task was too hard
When he laid that hambone
Up against their for'ed


Five months later, in a sassy number written by the blues man Tampa Red, Lil Johnson retraced Louis's recent victories over Kingfish Levinsky, Baer and Carnera. "You all heard about Primo Carnera," she sings ( pronouncing it "Canary"), "They thought he was so good/ But Joe started chopping on his head/ Like a farmer chopping wood." The song ends with a question: "Who's next?"

"Next" turned out to be Schmeling, a 10-to-1 underdog whose upset victory in June 1936, Louis's first defeat as a professional, led blacks in many American neighborhoods to riot out of a combination of anger, frustration and suspicion that the fight had been fixed. . That fight was immortalized in The Lion and Attila's infectious, spirited duet, "Louis- Schmeling Fight," one of several Joe Louis calypsos from Trinidad. So inconceivable was the result that night that many of Louis's fans were convinced he'd been drugged, a concern that the Trinidadian pair addresses. ("I wouldn't say was dope or conspiracy/ But the whole thing look extremely funny to me.") But their saga of Joe Louis local pronunciation: "Joe Louie" ends on an optimistic, and prophetic, note:

He's now staging a comeback campaign
And none can deny he's making his name
Whoever the Bomber meet, come what may
He mean to uppercut them to kill and slay
Pay no attention to what you've been told
He's bound to be the champion now of the world
And though he has absorbed so much pain

Well, Schmeling wouldn't like to meet him again!


Bill Gaither, who sings of coming all the way from Chicago to see the Louis-Schmeling rematch in Yankee Stadium in June 1938, reports the results, in a song recorded the day after the fight. With just one hard right, he sings, "Schmeling went down like the Titanic."

It was only two minutes and four seconds
'Fore Schmeling was down on his knees
Only two minutes and four seconds
'Fore Schmeling was down on his knees
He looked like he was praying to the good Lord
To 'Have mercy on me, please.'


Louis had already been champion for a decade and was ripe for some revisionism, by 1947, when the Dixieaires sang "Joe Louis Is a Fightin' Man." In it, the young Louis kisses his mother goodbye in Alabama before leaving for Detroit. (They actually went there together; Louis was 11 or 12 years old at the time.) Then Louis's famous trainer, Jack Blackburn, approaches Louis in Detroit and offers his services. (Actually, it was Louis's handlers, John Roxborough and Julian Black, who found Blackburn and took Louis to meet him, in Chicago). Finally, Louis wins the heavyweight crown from Schmeling, not Braddock. But with its explicit Biblical references the group sings "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" in the background the song captures Louis's quasi-divine status more accurately than any other.

Count Basie's "King Joe, Part I" (1941) with lyrics by the novelist Richard Wright, sung by Paul Robeson is by far the most ambitious undertaking in the compilation, and also the least successful. Robeson, who brought such dignity to Negro spirituals, just can't get down and dirty here. He sounds stiff and inhibited. "It certainly is an honor to be working with Mr. Robeson, but the man just can't sing the blues," Basie later told the producer John Hammond. In fact, Ms. Kosersky purposely left Part II of the song out of the collection. "I thought one was enough," she said.

With some of the Louis material, the connection to the boxer is quite tenuous. Ms. Kosersky did not include Mary Lou Williams's "Little Joe From Chicago" because, while some said it was about Joe Louis, it had actually been dedicated to her manager at the time, Joe Glaser. But she did select Cab Calloway's "Let's Go, Joe" (1942), largely because Calloway's manager had told her that Louis was the "Joe" to whom Calloway, a big fight fan, was referring. Ms. Kosersky also omitted Alberta Hunter's "He's Got a Punch Like Joe Louis" because, she said, it fit too many sexual stereotypes about black athletes. "It's a great song, and I'm not a prude," she said. "I just felt it wasn't appropriate."

And some things she never found, though she suspects that they're out there somewhere. Somewhere, for instance, there must be a Joe Louis song by one of the pre-eminent black songwriters of the day, Andy Razaf, but all that has turned up is a poem, apparently never set to music. Ditto for a Louis poem by Langston Hughes. Nor could she find a recording of Don Redmond's "Joe Louis Truck."

Louis was a bit musical himself: he took violin lessons as a boy and liked to play the harmonica, even on the eve of his most difficult fights. But as much music as he made or motivated, he might have meted out more, at least as Carl Martin puts it in "Joe Louis Blues," recorded only 20 days after Louis knocked out Max Baer in 1935.

Now he packs that might in his left
He carries a plunging right
Either one will make you groggy
Or as high as a kite
He charges on his opponent
From the beginning of the gong
He batters them into submission
Then they all sing a song."


In other words, Joe Louis may have inflicted even more songs than he inspired.  

David Margolick, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is working on a book and documentary about the Louis-Schmeling fights.

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